Spain became the first country in Western Europe to report half a million confirmed cases of coronavirus on Monday, and on Friday recorded the highest daily number of cases since May.
To stop the spread of infection in schools, in late August, the government set rules: all students aged six and over must wear masks in class; class sizes should be reduced; students should be kept in designated “bubbles” so they do not mix; tables should be located at a distance of at least 1.5 meters from each other; all schools should improve outdoor ventilation and provide hand disinfection stations.
However, the new Covid-19 rules risk widening the gap between rich and poor, exacerbating the gap between private and public schools, especially in the hardest hit areas of Madrid.
In the Spanish capital, the British Council School, a private paying institution, was already building a new open-air extension to its cafeteria when new Covid-19 guidelines were announced.
Now, six prefabricated mobile classrooms are being installed here, and its playground has been transformed into a rainbow maze of plastic partitions to keep students in their security bubbles.
“It forces you to think creatively, look at space differently and look at the basics of learning,” explains the head of the school Mercedes Hernandez.
Hernandez admits that her school is in a privileged position. “Technology, a large campus and great Spanish weather give us the opportunity to study in a wide variety of locations in many different ways,” she tells CNN.
On a tour of the suburban campus, Hernandez introduces the school’s head nurse, Inmaculada Erranz, who is teaching two smiling nurses who have joined her team ahead of the new school year.
They are just a few of the new hires the school has hired to help shoulder the burden of Covid-19 protocols: extra classes, testing and health checks.
The infirmary is littered with hand sanitizers, masks, face masks and thermometers. Herranz injects a pink liquid into our hands – the gold standard for disinfectant gels, she assures us.
Hernandez says the school makes the most of its happiness. He was able to act quickly – before government regulations were issued – because he drew on the experience of other British Council schools, especially in China.
“In January and February, the school began to form an incident management team, looking at possible scenarios – what will happen and what will we do?” says Hernandez. “Little did we know that in a few weeks he would reach Italy, and then to us.”
School exposes inequality
The difference between private and public schools in Madrid is striking, especially in working-class areas in the south, where the virus has been growing the fastest in recent weeks.
In the Leganés area, Aben Hamza Public School has a cracked concrete playground and steel shutters on the windows.
Maria Carmen Morillas of the National Parents’ Association says classes here can easily exceed 30 students, far exceeding government regulations.
But there are no builders building extensions to already well-ventilated classrooms, and there are no orientation programs for new hires. This is because budgets are still being processed.
“The delays have obviously created distrust,” she says. “A financial investment is absolutely necessary: teachers need to be hired now, from day one, not after weeks and weeks of waiting.”
At the end of August, Madrid’s municipal government finally pledged € 370 million ($ 437 million) for measures to tackle Covid-19 in schools, promising to hire 11,000 new teachers. But the news came too late for many of the city’s schools, which had to postpone the start of the school year.
The teachers are also disappointed.
“There was no forward planning,” says Laura McGregor, an English teacher at a private school in Madrid, whose own children attend a public school in the city center.
“We knew the virus would still be with us in September – plans had to be in place from July so that school administrations had time to prepare,” she says.
“They now work around the clock with no time to think or plan. The first few weeks of the semester will be really chaotic. “
To make matters worse, if classes cannot be safe, a spokesperson for the Morillas parent association fears that public school students may be forced to return to online learning. She fears that this will cause them to lag behind their peers in private schools that may remain open.
Morillas have four children of their own and only one computer, which they all had to share to study at the peak of the pandemic.
“The screen is not a school,” she says bluntly.
“Over the past few months, a digital divide has formed that has further widened the social divide, a problem that is now much deeper and more difficult to address.”
The pandemic underscores inequality in other European countries as well.
During isolation in the UK, 31% of private schools offered students four or more lessons per day, compared with 6% of public schools, University College London study
found. In half of the private schools surveyed, students spent four or more hours a day on school assignments, but in public schools this figure was only 18%.
And in August, students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who were unable to pass exams received grades determined by the algorithm, resulting in protesting alleged algorithmic bias
against students from more disadvantaged families.
Using an algorithm that has since returned
The UK government had to ensure fairness by ensuring that grades for the 2020 cohort are distributed along the lines of previous years, taking into account teacher-predicted grades and teacher ratings to determine grades. But crucially, he also took into account the historical performance of schools that benefited students from the more affluent.